The mixture of cool shadows and golden sunlight peering through the bridge house windows suggests a home: a preserved space over tumbling water, or at least a constant while life continues with its boom-bust disorder on either side of the creek.
While upkeep over the years has left hardly any of its original lumber or hardware, the recently renovated Unity Covered Bridge exists as a romantic beacon of Oregon’s past nestled at a cross roads of a winding drive from Dexter Reservoir.
Driving east from the Eugene-Springfield area sheds some of the advancing modern and concrete aesthetics, trading it for sprawling, small-town charm while passing through Pleasant Hill, Trent, Dexter and Lowell.
In 1977, the Lane Historical Society featured an essay “Saving the Bridges” by Rick Bella, specifically mentioning Unity Covered Bridge — and Oregon’s other covered bridges — as something that ought to be remembered.
“For a part of the country with such a rich history, there is very little left which can tell the story on its own,” Bella wrote. “Oregon’s frail wooden structures could stand defiant against the relentless rain for just so long before they had to give in. So the sad truth is that there just isn’t much left to show us what life was like before the coming of McDonald’s Golden Arches.”
Unity Covered Bridge was originally built in 1936 as replacement for a footbridge built nearly a mile downstream in 1890 outside the town of Lowell, according to the Covered Bridge Society of Oregon. Today, the bridge stretches 90 feet long and is sturdy enough to hold 30 ton vehicles to go through.
This summer Lane County treated Unity Covered Bridge to regular renovations — fresh paint, fresh signs and an exam of the bridge’s components — on its decades old existence. Past renovations include in 1986 when it received new floorboards. In 2014, it was refurbished with a new roof.
Lane County closed Unity Covered Bridge throughout most of each week throughout July for repairs, painting and other general maintenance. The county extended the closure by one week in August for the construction of a new concrete retention wall at the north opening.
Typically either side is crafted with lumber, but time and Oregon’s wet climate leaves the wood more vulnerable to wear and requires repair or replacement more often. Repairs on these bridges are often incredibly expensive, sometimes into the millions of dollars in certain cases, according to Covered Bridge Society of Oregon President Jerry Russell. The Unity Covered Bridge has been a part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, so it qualifies for federal funding.
“One of the big reasons I got into covered bridges was looking back and thinking these guys didn’t have cranes, they didn’t have power tools. It always intrigued me how these guys built these (bridges) without all the modern tools we have today,” Russell said.
“These guys built them to last, without all the modern equipment. To me, it’s an engineering feat as much as they’re also beautiful to look at.”
Russell estimates that he has seen more than 650 authentic covered bridges around North America and an additional 200 romantic shelters, or unofficial covered bridges, since 1982.
“Oregon has the largest collection of covered bridges in the West and one of the largest in the nation,” according to the CBSO website. Lane County is home to 19 of the remaining 51 covered bridges in the state. In its heyday — 1905 to 1925 — there were an estimated 600 covered bridges in Oregon.
“Lane County was the first county to build covered bridges on a large scale, and they still maintain more than any other county west of the Mississippi River,” Russell said.
Each bridge requires care and maintenance by the county, state or community, or these pieces of history risk fading away, lost to future generations. The Oregon Covered Bridge Society of Oregon will disband at the end of 2020 due to low membership, however, the national organization will continue to update their website, according to Russell.
“There is something about a covered bridge which seems to take us by the hand and lead us back into the past— not quite back to the time of creaking, lurching wagon trains, but back to a slower pace of life and the warmth which comes from the pride of accomplishment,” Bella wrote in 1977.
“It seems to say hard work has produced something which will survive the harsh elements for a long time.”
Check out a photo gallery with this story at registerguard.com